Starter Fluid vs. Carb Cleaner: Which One Should You Prefer for Your Vehicle?

Are you worried about selecting the right tool or method to keep your car performing? Then, you may have found choosing between a starter or starting fluid and carb cleaner complex too. These garage or tool shed products help to start the motor properly. In this article, I have focused on “starter fluid vs. carb cleaner” to inform you about their differences.

Briefly, starter fluid is a volatile, flammable liquid. Mainly, it helps to start the internal combustion process in the engines in cold or odd weather conditions. Alternatively, carb cleaner is a petroleum or oil-based cleaning tool to keep the carburetor free from sludge, gunk, and varnish. But starter fluid and carb cleaner are not interchangeable.

You can learn about both products in more detail at the end of the article. I have discussed their composition, functions, applications, and some others. So, I suggest you continue to read this content and decide which one you should keep in the garage.

Starter Fluid vs. Carb Cleaner: A Comparison Chart

Here is a brief overview of the differences between starter fluid and carb cleaner:

AspectStarter FluidCarb Cleaner
PurposeHelps to start an engine, especially in cold weatherKeeps the carburetor clean and improves engine efficiency
Effect on EngineProvides a quick, powerful burst to help the engine startRemoves dirt, varnish, gum, carbon deposits, and sludge from the carburetor
Effect on Two-stroke enginesApplicable without damaging the engineGood for lubrication as it can remove the oil layer in the cylinder
CompositionContains ether (a highly explosive chemical), more combustible than diesel or gasolineA powerful cleaning agent to deal dirt, oil, and other build-ups in the carburetor.
UseNeeds to be used carefully as a final option for its highly explosive natureWorks as a part of routine engine maintenance
AvailabilityWidely available in auto parts storesWidely available but good to use it as an alternative to starter fluid in a pinch
Safety PrecautionsHighly flammable and applied with cautionsFlammable but less volatile than starter fluid
RisksUnnecessary application can damage the internal components of the cylinder.Excessive spray can make carburetors flood. Also, it may harm the human skin and respiratory system if not used properly.
SubstitutesCarb Cleaner can be used in emergencies (not recommended)Usable as a temporary substitute to starter fluid while avoiding any potential damage.

Starter Fluid: What You Should Know

Do you love coffee in the morning? Starter fluid is something like a cup of strong coffee for the engine. It assists in waking up and getting the engine to move. This section explains the definition, composition, function, application, and vice versa.

What is Starter Fluid?

You may also know it as starting fluid. You can find this fluid in aerosol spray cans.

This highly flammable liquid contains mostly volatile hydrocarbons like heptane. Besides heptane, it may contain variable quantities of diethyl ether (C4H10O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) as the propellant. Altogether the composition helps to start the internal combustion engine for its low autoignition temperature (source).

You can spray it into the engine intake near the air filter. Also, it applies to the carburetor bore or engine’s spark plug hole for better combustion. In most cases, people living in cold areas use started fluid to fire the engine quickly.

Functions of Starter Fluid

Starting fluid is more explosive than gasoline or diesel. It means it ignites easier from a spark and generates more force to turn on an engine. If your car has difficulty starting its engine, particularly in winter, you can spray the starter fluid. You can also apply it to engines with problems in the ignition system.

According to AMS Oil, the fuel must vaporize to combust in a gasoline engine. Again, fuel is vaporized in carbureted engines. The fuel is forced through the tiny openings in the carburetor. But carburetors do not vaporize fuel as efficiently as fuel injectors. On the other hand, gasoline does not vaporize readily when the temperature is too low or cold. In this way, we may find it hard to start a cold engine.

When you apply starter fluid, it ignites the fuel instantly, even in cold temperatures. Applying a small quantity of this fluid can start the engine and generate heat. In this way, it helps to vaporize the fuel more readily.

When Should You Use Starter Fluid?

If you have tried your best to start the engine, you can use the starter fluid as the ultimate solution. I suggest you check if other components like the battery, starter, and alternator are fine. Maybe the frozen battery is why your car or truck is not starting. So, solve those issues before spraying the starting fluid.

Pros and Cons of Starter Fluid

Prolongs battery lifePotentially dangerous for some engines like diesel engines with glow-plugs or preheating system
Easy to apply with a sprayer canRisky for 2-cycle engines as starter fluid lacks lubricating properties
Assists in starting the engineRisk of pre-ignition in diesel engines
Brilliant results with cold starts amid cold or wet seasonsExcessive or improper use of starting fluid may even blow up the engine
Useful when there’s an issue with the ignition systemNot recommended to apply on a hot engine due to its high flammability
Helps to prevent carburetors from freezing
Applicable as a diagnostic tool to ensure proper fuel delivery to the engine

Application of Starter Fluid

Wikihow, Weingartz, Yard & Garden Guru suggest using starter fluid in this way:

  1. Store the starter fluid safely. It is highly flammable and combustible. So, avoid placing it near hot engines or spraying it near hot engines.
  2. Check the user manual to see if your car can use starter fluid. It may not be suitable for all vehicles.
  3. Turn off the engine and let it cool down before spraying the starter fluid.
  4. Locate the air intake or spark plug hole. The air intake is usually located near the air filter. Also, the spark plug hole is located on the engine block.
  5. Remove the air filter cover or spark plug wire to access the air intake or spark plug hole.
  6. Shake the can of starter fluid well before using it.
  7. Spray a small amount of starter fluid into the air intake or spark plug hole. Aim the can’s nozzle at the air intake or spark plug hole from about 12” (20 cm) away.
  8. Spray the starter fluid for about two seconds, then try to turn the engine over.
  9. If the engine still does not turn over, spray another two-second blast.

Tips for Using Starter Fluid Safely and Effectively

You should use the ether safely to avoid any mishaps. Some tips you can follow:

  • Use starter fluid only as a last option when all other methods have failed.
  • Follow the instructions on the can.
  • Never use more than a recommendation.
  • Be highly cautious using starter fluid, which is highly flammable and combustible.
  • You should not spray it when the ignition is on or the engine is hot.
  • Have a fire extinguisher nearby, and avoid working near open flames or sparks.
  • Avoid inhaling fumes and wear protective gloves and eye protection.
  • You may need to clean or rebuild the carburetor if the engine starts momentarily before quitting.

What Do People Say about Starter Fluid?

I have found mixed opinions regarding the starter fluid. Automobile enthusiasts have used it in their engines. From their experiences, they put comments like these:

Starter fluid on gasoline engine is fine, no harm done. starter fluid on diesel engine is a big no-no, period.” (source)

The above feedback explains that starting fluid on a gas engine can be used. But it can be unsafe to use on a diesel engine. But in the same thread, another user talked about using carb cleaner.

“I switched to carb cleaner. Just as effective, but more versatile.”

In another forum, a user said,

Starting fluid is a very good solvent and does wash down cylinders; prolonged abuse will lead to excessive ring wear…” (source)

Then again, another forum user suggested not to use starter fluid too much.

“Starting fluid can certainly damage an engine if too much is used.” (source)

Carb Cleaner: What You Should Know

Carb or carburetor cleaner is a well-known cleaning solution for engine carburetors. If the starter fluid is coffee, you can consider carb cleaner as the toothbrush. It keeps the car clean and free from gunk. However, in this part, learn about the definition composition, function, application, and others regarding carb cleaner.

What is Carb Cleaner?

The carburetor mixes air and fuel and sends the mixture into the cylinder for proper ignition. Through this, it serves power to the vehicle. But it can get dirty or clogged over time. You can clean the dirty carb using a quality carb cleaner.

It has a composition of various ingredients derived from petroleum, chemical compounds, or geological sources. The composition of these ingredients can break down sludge and varnish from the carburetor. According to Jerry, a carb cleaner may have these ingredients: acetone ((CH₃) ₂CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), ethylbenzene (C₆H₅CH₂CH), methanol (CH3OH), and toluene (C₆H₅CH₃).

You can find spray-on aerosol of carb cleaner. Also, you can apply it by spraying it like starter fluid.

Functions of Carb Cleaner

The chemical ingredients of a carb cleaner break down any deposit of dirt, oil, and other build-ups of a carburetor. After spraying it, it dissolves these build-ups. You can easily wipe or rinse the dissolved deposits. It helps to enhance the engine performance and efficiency.

Carb cleaners work by flushing the fuel thru the jets and passages while the bike is running.” (source)

When Should You Use Carb Cleaner?

Carb cleaner is a hazardous material. It can irritate the skin and eyes. Also, you may have respiratory problems inhaling it, as the study of Morris Lubricants says.

You should apply it as a part of scheduled engine maintenance. You may also use it when the engine performance seems less smooth. However, many experts suggest it as a helpful tool when the engine idles roughly, stalls, or provides less fuel efficiency.

Pros and Cons of Carb Cleaner

Dissolves and removes dirt, oil, and other carburetor build-upsIncorrect application can damage non-metal components
Improves engine performance and efficiencyComposed of harmful chemicals for human skin and respiratory system
Extends the engine lifespanNot recommended to use on brake-related components
Applicable on versatile enginesMay leave light, oily residues
Safe for plastic and rubber parts
Good to use on visible carburetor parts

Application of Carb Cleaner

Before applying the carb cleaner, you should store it safely. It is highly flammable and combustible. So, avoid placing it near hot engines or spraying it near hot engines.

Bennetts, Motor1 suggests applying carb cleaner in these ways to clean a dirty carburetor:

  1. Turn off the engine and let it cool down before using carb cleaner.
  2. Locate the carburetor or throttle body. The carburetor is near the engine block. Again, the throttle body is between the air filter and the intake manifold.
  3. Remove the air filter cover or any other parts that block access to the carburetor or throttle body.
  4. Spray the carb cleaner onto the carburetor or throttle body.
  5. Aim the can’s nozzle at the carburetor or throttle body and spray the cleaner liberally.
  6. Let the cleaner soak for a few minutes to dissolve dirt or grime.
  7. Use an airline or a can of pressurized air to blow through the jets and other small passages.
  8. Repeat the previous spraying steps until you see no more dirt or grime.

Tips for Using Carb Cleaner Safely and Effectively

Like starter fluid, you may follow these tips to use carb clear safely:

  • Use carb cleaner in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling the fumes.
  • Avoid spraying carb cleaners near hot engines or open flames. It is highly flammable and combustible.
  • Wear hand gloves and proper eye protection to avoid skin and eye contact with the cleaner.
  • Do not use carb cleaner on plastic or rubber components. It may damage them.
  • Follow the instructions on the aerosol can.
  • Never spray more than recommended.

What Do People Say About Carb Cleaners?

While studying the opinions in different forums, I have found some effective products for cleaning dirt carbs. Some comments are like these:

I have used the Mercury Decarbonizer… It cleaned out both intake and outtake areas and the motor ran pretty good.” (Source)

“I use seafoam and have been happy with it.” (source)

Seafoam seems to be effective at cleaning off and preventing carbon deposits as well as gum deposits and varnish in carburetors.”(source)

Which One Should You Use for Different Situations?

You have learned about the differences between starter fluid and carb cleaners. Now, you may hesitate to select between them.

Well, you should use carb cleaner to clean carburetors and throttle bodies. On the other hand, use starter fluid to assist with the cold starting of internal combustion engines.

Many ask, “Can carb cleaner be used as starter fluid?” Here is the answer:

Suppose you need to start the engine quickly. But you do not have any starter fluid. In that case, you can use carb cleaner as a substitute. But you should not do it all the time.

A carb cleaner is not designed to work as a starting fluid. Besides, it can emit harmful toxic elements in the exhaust when you use it as a starter fluid. You should not use it on plastic or rubber to prevent damage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some questions are below regarding starter fluid vs. carb cleaner:

  • What are the alternatives to starter fluid?
  • You can use WD40, hairspray, and carburetor cleaner if there is an emergency or if there is no starter fluid.
  • Is starter fluid safe to use?
  • It is a volatile and flammable liquid that you should use with caution. Also, follow the instructions on the can carefully. Also, avoid spraying it near open flames or other ignition sources.
  • Is it safe to use starter fluid on all engines?
  • No. Starter fluid is a very dry chemical with the least lubrication value. So, using too much or too often can damage the internal components of the cylinder.

Conclusion: Starter Fluid vs. Carb Cleaner

Starter fluid and carburetor cleaner are two different products. Carb cleaner cleans the carburetor, and starter fluid helps in the cold starting of internal combustion engines. You can use them for different purposes. So, do not worry about choosing one between them.

In this article, I have discussed everything regarding these two engine cleaning or maintenance tools. You have learned about their functions, compositions, benefits, and disadvantages. As a bonus, I have also shared how to use them safely in different situations.

I hope this article helps you choose between carb cleaner and starter fluid. I wholeheartedly welcome you to leave any feedback regarding the topic. Thanks a lot.

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